Diana Fite, MD, became president of the Texas Medical Association in 2020-21 after building up decades of experience in organized medicine, and she needed every minute of it to lead Texas physicians through a novel challenge: COVID-19.
TMA presidents typically visit different county medical societies and see as many physicians as possible as a routine part of their one-year term. All that came to a disappointing halt for Dr. Fite.
Instead, the Houston emergency physician focused almost all her attention on efforts to address the pandemic, such as finding personal protective equipment for physicians, educating the public, keeping up with the latest treatments, and helping physician practices stay open.
“The worst part was the physicians who were just getting burned out or just traumatized by having so many sick patients or patients dying, or patients dying without their families around them,” she said. “That put a lot of burden on physicians.”
For her leadership that year and her decades of work in organized medicine, Dr. Fite became one of two physicians to receive TMA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, at TexMed 2023 in May. It was the fourth time that TMA’s Board of Councilors honored two people at once since the award was created in 1962. The other honoree was El Paso pediatric infectious disease specialist Gilbert Handal, MD, who has championed improved health care along the Texas-Mexico border. (See “Bringing Medicine to the World,” page 4.)
Before becoming president, Dr. Fite served on more than 25 TMA boards, councils, and committees over four decades, including having chaired the TMA Board of Trustees, a TMA council, and several committees. She also presided over the Harris County Medical Society and serves on the Texas Delegation to the American Medical Association. She has been active in TEXPAC, TMA’s political action committee, and in TMA advocacy efforts.
Dr. Fite attended what is now McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston in the 1970s. She graduated with honors and entered the then-emerging specialty of emergency medicine. She quickly became a leader there, serving as president of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians.
At TexMed, Dr. Fite thanked all the friends and mentors she’s had at TMA, saying every time she thought of one, three more came to mind.
“This is why organized medicine is so important to physicians,” she said. “To make all these friends and contacts is something that we will cherish the rest of our lives, and it helps us get through all the hard stress of taking care of patients.”
Dr. Fite’s commitment to medicine has not been easy: She is the mother of eight children, two of whom have died. Also, in 2006, Dr. Fite experienced an acute stroke that left her without speech or movement in half her body. Fortunately, it was diagnosed and treated quickly.
“She made a complete recovery – and then later appeared on the front page of The New York Times promoting awareness of the importance of early stroke recognition,” said former TMA House of Delegates Speaker Arlo Weltge, MD, a medical school classmate and TMA colleague who bestowed the TMA honor on Dr. Fite at TexMed.
Initially hesitant to get into organized medicine in the 1970s, Dr. Fite assumed she was breaking into a hostile good old boys’ club when she attended her first meeting.
“It looked like pretty much older men, all white-haired,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m willing to do service on this or that because you need some females, and you need some younger people.’”
To her surprise, the white-haired old men were delighted.
“They were like, ‘Sure, we’d be happy to have you join us,’ even though I thought it was this closed clique with all these older people. They were all nice and welcoming.”
Dr. Fite told Texas Medicine many young physicians may feel like she once did – that joining TMA requires breaking into a tight-knit club. Many probably feel they don’t have the time because of their workload and family commitments. And many physicians understandably don’t want to pay attention to health care policymaking.
“They just want to practice medicine,” she acknowledged.
But physicians do themselves a favor by joining TMA and other medical organizations because they learn more about medicine and get to know colleagues in different regions and specialties, she says. And TMA also can help them address the time-consuming concerns they see at work.
At TexMed, Dr. Fite pointed out many of the difficulties facing emergency medicine right now. Overcrowding in emergency departments (EDs) has reached critical levels, she says. Patients are now kept indefinitely in ED hallways, forcing physicians to see patients in the waiting room, where there is usually little privacy or security.
“This is something that is disrespectful to patients,” she said. “They can’t get a decent exam; we can’t get a decent history from them. It’s disrespectful to the physicians. I think it’s contributing badly to the burnout … for emergency physicians.
“We as the Texas Medical Association, we’re large enough together. We can make our voice heard on this issue.”